President Emerita Catharine Hill gave her final Fall Convocation address on Sept. 7, speaking alongside Interim President Jonathan Chenette and VSA President Calvin Lamothe ’17. The speeches focused on financial aid, veteran’s programs, the worldwide refugee crisis and cutting-edge academic research.
Hill’s speech, entitled “Athena, Economics, and Feathers,” considered the promises and possibilities that higher education reform could bring to the nation’s next generation of scholars and thinkers. Represented in both the Vassar College seal and the West Point coat of arms, the wisdom of Athena unites people from all walks of life in the pursuit of a just and happy society. Hill’s vision of a progressive and just future includes equitable access to higher education. She reflected, “America needs to increase higher education attainment, and also make it more equitably available to all demographic groups. Vassar has made great progress in the last decade and I hope that it sustains and continues this progress. This means both matriculating and graduating students from all different backgrounds, but also making Vassar an inclusive community where everyone can learn, especially from each other.”
Vassar College continues to capture popular acclaim for its comprehensive financial aid initiatives, and has entered into the fourth year of its partnership with the Posse Veterans Program dedicated to providing returning soldiers with a strong education. Looking back to her presidency, Hill noted, “The main thing that makes up an institution is the people who are associated with it. That means the students, faculty, staff and alums.” She elaborated, “I will miss attending all kinds of things at the College that counted as ‘working,’ but that were so much fun, from VRDT, to concerts, to athletic events. And, I’ll miss walking around the beautiful campus, especially Sunset Lake.”
However, Hill’s departure is not the only significant institutional change happening this year. The VSA has overhauled many of its positions, committees and offices, with revised procedures and responsibilities going into effect for the first time. Lamothe commented, “I’m really looking forward to the upcoming school year. From a VSA perspective, the fact that we have a new structure is both a challenge and an opportunity. We’ve designed a new system that should make our student government more efficient and accessible, but it’s going to take a lot of work to implement the system effectively.” With these changes to college administration and student government, the campus has prepared for new achievements this year.
Vassar prides itself on its commitment to bring positive change to the national and international spheres. Chenette’s speech introduced this topic by citing the 21st Century Worldwide Refugee Crisis seminar led in Spring 2016 by the Chair of History Maria Höhn. The worldwide refugee crisis encompasses a large portion of the world, engulfing Syria and the Middle East, Myanmar and Southeast Asia, as well as Ukraine and Central Europe. Höhn emphasized, “It is an unprecedented crisis of forced displacement, caused by war, political unrest and instability, environmental degradation and severe economic hardship in large parts of the world. More than 65 million people are external or internal refugees, and two-thirds of them are women and children.”
The seminar engaged over 100 students, faculty and local community members in critical reflection about the worldwide refugee crisis. Höhn explained, “I think one of the main accomplishments of our six-week class was that VC faculty—Professors Samson Opondo, Giovanna Borradori, Sukanya Basu, Joseph Nevins, Stuart Belli, Maria Hantzopoulos—as well as outside advocates for refugees helped educate us. We all learned together, and in learning together, we discovered ways in which VC students can become involved.” She asserted that the students in the seminar took their passion for the topic outside of the classroom. She explained, “The class mobilized the campus, and also brought about an extensive cooperation between Vassar students and local faith-based and civic groups, as well as other colleges, who are also concerned about the millions of forcibly displaced individuals. Our students really stepped up to the plate, and the VC Refugee Solidarity team led by Anish Kanoria ’18 proved a tremendous force to get the ball rolling.” This cooperation has allowed Vassar College to welcome Salam Al Kuntar and other speakers from the Scholars at Risk program, as well as channel aid and volunteer hours to aid organizations at home and abroad.
Most importantly, the seminar set a precedent for how institutions of higher education should be involved in the geopolitical and socioeconomic conflicts of the world. Höhn concluded, “In my 20 years of teaching at Vassar, I have never been more proud of our students. They are awesome. I hope that many of our new first-year students on campus will want to be involved, and that together we can think of innovative and creative ways in this challenging time.”
Besides serving as a force for positive social change, Vassar also enjoys renown for its rigorous academics. The cutting-edge research that takes place here was celebrated by announcing the election of several faculty members to endowed chairs. Assistant Professor of Biology Kelli Duncan was appointed to the Class of 1951 Chair for her extensive scholarship and dedication to students. Duncan explained, “My work examines how the brain naturally repairs itself following injury. Specifically, I am interested in the role of steroid hormones following injury and how they can help to repair and protect the brain from damage. This year, I will continue to study the natural repair pathways, but I also plan to expand my research on how injury changes behavior, specifically social behaviors.”
Other professors appointed to endowed chairs also demonstrated excellence in the natural sciences. Professor of Chemistry Joseph Tanski was appointed to the Matthew Vassar, Jr. Chair for his extensive laboratory work. According to Tanski, “My research is in the fields of asymmetric catalysis and molecular structure determination by X-ray diffraction, or X-ray crystallography. X-ray crystallography is an instrumental method by which we may determine the actual three-dimensional structure of molecules; literally how the atoms are arranged in molecules—what the molecules ‘look like’ and how they pack together in the solid state. We use the technique to look at the structures of any materials produced in our catalysis work.” This sort of research is made more possible in the new Bridge for Laboratory Sciences building with modern and spacious facilities.
As a liberal arts college, Vassar is strong in both the sciences and humanities. Professor of Film and Junior Class Dean Mia Mask was appointed to the Mary Riepma Ross ’32 Chair for her ongoing research in association with Illinois University Press on African-American cinema. Mask has also written critiques of “Human Rights Watch” documentaries and other nonfiction media. Considering her work in the context of the academic community at Vassar, Mask noted, “I am thankful my scholarship has been recognized with this honor. There are many scholars at Vassar doing excellent, innovative work […] Most of the scholarship faculty produce at Vassar and elsewhere in the academy directly feeds into our teaching. Faculty research is essential to the classroom because it nourishes our pedagogy.”
These academic luminaries also offered advice that spoke to incoming students, outgoing students and recent graduates alike. Mask recalled, “Years ago I was an advising a student’s thesis. She worked really hard, as many Vassar students do. Several years after graduation, she came back to visit me. She had a great job and was living in Manhattan. She told me that while writing it she didn’t understand why I was making her work so hard. I asked her what she learned from the process. She said the thesis taught her there wasn’t anything she couldn’t achieve. Everything after that, i.e., getting a job, living in NYC and graduate school, felt doable.”
Tanski expounded on his knowledge of scientific procedure and rhetoric to encourage students to stay curious in their studies. He advised, “One learns to conduct scientific investigations by actually doing them. In chemistry in particular, working in a lab and learning to use chemical instrumentation, in particular, and interpret and communicate the results, are the most important things to do to prepare for and get accepted graduate school.” While developing skills for experimental observation and abstract theory, students should also stay open to serendipity. Duncan reflected, “Don’t be afraid to try new things and step outside of your comfort zone. I got into research after a chance meeting at a bus stop and it ended up changing the entire direction of my life.”
Höhn corroborated, “One of our main goals as a liberal arts college is to educate young leaders who can go out and make the world a better place. One need not have to wait to be president or head of an NGO to make a difference.” While Fall Convocation showcased the ways in which Vassar College has been at the forefront of higher education reform, crisis response and ongoing research, the campus community is once more at the moment of new beginnings.